by Candace Bushnell
The Rules of Attraction
A review by Ann Marlowe
"What is it with S/M? Since I got divorced, every woman I've dated has wanted
me to tie her up or spank her. Is it something about me or is this what women
want these days?" My friend Bill is a cultivated, mild-mannered blazer and
khaki pants kind of guy in his late 40s, and his girlfriends tend to be 30-ish
bankers or lawyers as buttoned-down and Upper East Side-looking as he is. I understood
Bill's confusion, but I tried to explain.
Almost any woman Bill would date in New York would be up for some highly stylized
submission. These women are tired of androgyny, sick of men who treat them like
pals. And they want to feel the boot occasionally. The wish to be dominated
doesn't extend to important stuff, however, like choosing restaurants and movies.
As my friend John says, American women want to be "forced" to do the
things they already want to do. It's sexy to be tied up and kissed, but boring
to be dragged along for an afternoon of auto parts shopping.
In the absence of most other symbols of femininity and masculinity, and the
disappearance of most of the rituals of courtship, S/M reintroduces the powerfully
erotic idea of gender difference. And of course it's the most successful women
who are into it. It's the successful men who hire dominatrixes, too. But if
women are now able to embrace symbolic submissiveness, it's because they are
starting to have a choice, and because they're nostalgic -- not for a submissive
role, but for a world with any roles and rules at all.
Candace Bushnell's new novel, Lipstick Jungle, is set in this landscape
of female progress and disillusionment, where the question of the moment is
how a woman can feel sexy even if she far out-earns her husband. After all,
in a culture where masculine sex appeal is equated with high earnings, a woman
who is more successful than almost all men is desexed. For Victory, the one
single character, this pretzels into a question of ego when she dates a man
whose wealth dwarfs hers: "How can I be a successful woman when I'm with an
even more successful man?" And so, because Bushnell's three fortysomething heroines
are the sort of Manhattanites who haven't been in the subway in years, buy private
jet shares, and lunch at Michaels, they're also the sort who want to be dominated
in bed. "All she could think about was Kirby and that glorious feeling of being
overcome," Nico O'Reilly muses in the opening scene of Lipstick Jungle.
Nico (supposedly modeled on Anna Wintour) has an even-keeled, practical partnership
with her banker-turned-househusband Seymour. She loves him and their daughter
and prizes their smooth life together, but at 42 she hasn't had sex with Seymour
for three years.
For Seymour -- as for the stereotypical corporate wife he's modeled on, down
to his expertise on early American antiques and interest in showing purebred
dogs -- sex is far down on the list of enjoyable activities. So Nico falls into
the arms of pantyhose-cutting Kirby Atwood, a verbally challenged underwear
model with nothing to do all day but make love. (If I wore pantyhose, maybe
I'd think a guy named Kirby sounded hot, but to a downtown gal like me, "Kirby"
is a nice name for a cat.)
Nico's pal Wendy Healy, 44, is a high-earning film producer who has supported
her shiftless, vain wannabe director husband Shane for all of their marriage.
Eventually Shane asks for a divorce and tries to milk Wendy for all she's worth
-- and get custody of the kids. Not that they're any prize; rarely has
fiction shown us such authentically charmless upper-caste Manhattan children.
I like to imagine that Bushnell, who is childless, took some pleasure in crafting
the scene where Wendy's 6-year-old son punches her in the face. And in this
novel of role reversals, of course Wendy wouldn't dream of spanking him.
Eventually Wendy finds happiness in the arms of her erstwhile competitor Selden
Rose, who appeared in Bushnell's last novel, Trading
Up, as the exploited husband of Bushnell's main character Janey (herself
first introduced in Bushnell's Four
Blondes) and is a lonely divorced guy in Lipstick Jungle. (Since
I reviewed "Four Blondes" and came to the conclusion that Candace Bushnell is
not Jane Austen, I didn't feel obligated to read Trading Up, so I cribbed
that detail from Amazon.) The details of Selden and Wendy's sex life is left
to the imagination, but perhaps their clothes enact a drama of submission and
dominance, for we're told that Selden's "tailored navy suit, worn with an open,
white dress shirt, screamed casual power."
The third relationship option Bushnell portrays is the one we're meant to root
for. Plucky, outspoken and refreshingly reckless fashion designer Victory Ford
ends up with a strapping, hypercompetitive, just this side of manic billionaire
named Lyne Bennett. He's the only manly man in the book, despite his epicene
name. (And what about "Selden Rose"? What's up with Bushnell's penchant for
naming her male characters like law firms? Law firms without any Jews, too.
Then again, Lyne's surname might be a gender-bending allusion to Pride
and Prejudice's heroine Elizabeth Bennett.)
Bushnell is also discreet about Lyne's sexual prowess; when she discusses men
with big jobs like Bennett and Rose, she's bashful, almost as though she were
forgetting that they're all fictional characters and aren't going to use their
influence to get back at her! But Lyne has the potential for domination, as
Victory realizes: "Even in her heels, he was at least six inches taller
than she was, so she couldn't exactly protest physically." Lyne is only
pulling Victory into the Whitney Biennial opening, but you get the idea.
If I had a daughter (the kind who wouldn't punch me in the face) I wouldn't
want her taking Candace Bushnell characters as role models. The women of Lipstick
Jungle are much smarter and more appealing than the women of Four Blondes
-- they love their work and not only the rewards of it -- but they are still
too one-dimensional. They're the kind of girls who don't have interests, only
But better them than the hapless, passive heroines of more skilled writers
like Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz and Melissa Bank, characters who depend on men
not only for their emotional well-being but for their jobs and their rent. "It's
so easy to solve your problems when you're a successful woman and you have your
own money," Wendy tells Nico near the end of the book, and she's right,
at least about many of the problems female characters face in chick lit. And
I was ready to forgive Bushnell her tin ear when she has Victory Ford pick up
the $1,000 check for her first date with Lyne at Cipriani, just to show him
that she's not interested in him for his money. It might be the first time I've
read such a scene in a novel: I only wish it would happen more in real life.
And I liked it even better when Lyne responds to Victory's accusation that "the
person who has the most money in the relationship has the control," with,
"That may be, but if they're a decent person, they never let the other
A few pages later maturity rears its head again: Wendy and Selden -- whose
workplace rivalry has been gradually softening into friendship, at Selden's
initiative -- run into each other at the Mercer Hotel at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.
She admits that she's had to move out of her loft due to her divorce, and he
makes a startling admission. His second marriage, to a supermodel (Janey from
Four Blondes), failed because "I let my ego overrule my common sense."
Wendy wonders if Selden is "really that decent." There's that word "decent"
again -- could Bushnell be mellowing in her middle age? (And would any man ever
admit that his ego had overruled his common sense?)
[Note: If you don't want to know how things turn out for the characters
in Lipstick Jungle, stop reading now.]
By the end of Lipstick Jungle, decency and maturity are epidemic. (A
lucky thing too, because after almost 400 pages the reader will have tired of
Bushnell's leaden, clumsy prose and malapropisms. Four Blondes had a
certain brisk facility, but the editing here is much worse.) Nico has decided
that the fact that "she and Seymour really, really liked each other and always
had" is "a lot more important than lust." She lets Kirby down gently, with a
$5,000 check that breaks a bigger taboo than Victory's picking up the tab at
Cipriani. Wendy goes through an amicable divorce and Selden is about to move
in with her. She resolves to treat Shane well, after hearing him explode that
"when a woman gives up her career to take care of her kids, she's a hero, and
when a man does it, all you women think there's something wrong with him." "She
was so much more powerful than he was ... She must be benign." And Victory is
finally able to be vulnerable after the biggest, and self-administered, setback
of her business career. She and Lyne Bennett go off shopping into the sunset
At the novel's close, Bushnell's clever but diagrammatic gender role reversals
have finally brought her and her characters to a plane of real feeling and humanity
never glimpsed in her earlier writing, a place beyond the power dynamics of
S/M and gold digging alike. Somehow her three women have moved past the dilemma
posed by Wendy early in the book, when she contemplates the myth she purveys
in her romantic films:
"The rules were rigid: a high-status man falls in love with a lower-status,
but worthy and deserving, woman. Fifty years of feminism and education and
success had done little to eradicate the power of this myth, and there were
times when the fact that she was selling this bullshit to women made Wendy
feel uneasy. But what choice did she have? ... How many women would eagerly
sign up for the opposite: high status woman ... falls in love with lower-status
male ... and ends up taking care of him?"
Bushnell is an intuitive rather than an analytical writer, and it isn't clear
how she thinks the issue can be resolved, how powerful women can find beta males
sexy. The mood of the ending is better than the circumstances might suggest:
Nico gives up on eroticism for companionship, and Wendy finds a nicer and less
superficial version of Shane in Selden. In the closing scenes, Wendy has announced
that she's pregnant with Selden's baby, and Nico hopes that Selden will continue
working even after the child is born, "at least for a little while. Imagine
having to support two men and four children!" The only duo where the sex
seems hot is the most conventional partnership, tall, rich Lyne and madcap Victory.
But you don't pick up a Candace Bushnell novel for the logic. What Bushnell
does so well is to get just the slightest bit ahead of the curve. Just as her
Sex and the City girls are more common now than they were in the days
of her New York Observer columns, so the coarse, energetic woman tycoons
of Lipstick Jungle might be signposts for the years ahead. I'd welcome
the change. And men who date ambitious women might have to resign themselves
to a more strenuous sex life -- or at least to clothes that "scream casual power."